A group of Connecticut veterans spoke Thursday about how their lives were knocked off course while they waited for the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department to process their disability claims.
At a Hartford roundtable discussion organized by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, vets related experiences like seeing their homes foreclosed while their cases languished in a disability claim backlog at the VA.
Blumenthal said reliable statistics on the backlog are difficult to find. But estimates indicate there are about 780,000 disability cases pending at the VA nationally, he said. Around 500,000 of those cases have been pending for more than 125 days. In Connecticut, he said there are around 1,300 cases backlogged.
One of those cases involves Mikell Kiersey, an East Granby resident who served during the Vietnam era. Kiersey said he first started the claims process in 1975 and has been struggling with it since then.
Kiersey said he has been denied claims relating to Agent Orange exposure and spent time awaiting medical benefits for heart problems. He said his family lost their home in the process.
“It’s been pretty hard,” he said. “You serve your country and then they sort of forget about you.”
Kiersey said he has struggled with depression and anger over delays with his benefits. Daniel Passmore, an Army veteran from Waterbury who filed for bankruptcy after the processing of his claim was delayed, said he knows the feeling.
“I went through a lot of that. I got angry at something I couldn’t control,” he said, adding that he lost the ability to take care of his family when service-related injuries forced him to miss work at his machinist job following surgeries.
Passmore injured his feet in a jump from a military vehicle while he was stationed in Germany. Over the years, he said the injury worsened and he found himself awaiting compensation for various repair surgeries. His recovery put him out of work for months and he couldn’t make his mortgage payments, he said, adding that undergoing the surgery wasn’t a choice.
“You get to a point where you just can’t work with the injuries,” he said.
Passmore said his feet were swollen to the point where he couldn’t stand for 45 hours in front of machines throughout the work week.
Randall Hightower, a Farmington Marine Corps veteran, said the VA has denied his medical claims, which stem from water contamination at bases. He said he is now on cusp of foreclosure.
“I’m going to be homeless. It’s not doubtful. It’s going to happen,” he said.
It’s gotten to the point where Hightower regrets joining the military.
“As much as I love this country, I loved joining the Marine Corps, becoming a drill instructor — if I knew then what I know now, I never, never would have joined the Marine Corps. And that’s a sad commentary,” he said.
Blumenthal agreed and called the cases “unacceptable.” He said everyone of the veterans deserved better. The senator said he is seeking to pass legislation that would require the VA and the Defense Department to combine their medical records. He said the change would help the agencies handle the claims of veterans.
Blumenthal said the backlog problem stems from the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department rather than Connecticut’s state Department of Veteran Affairs. He said he has spoken to General Eric Shinseki, secretary of the federal department, who is “honestly and conscientiously” trying to correct the problem.
Blumenthal said part of the delay has been caused by decisions to make more veterans eligible to make claims. Even so, he said the department needs to be held accountable.
“The bottom line here is that the VA can and should do better. If it doesn’t, heads should roll and procedures should be changed,” he said.
Tom Stefanko, advocacy and assistance director for the Connecticut VA, said the state department advocates on behalf of Connecticut veterans and helps them file claims with the federal government.
“When those claims get to the federal level, unfortunately that’s out of our hands. Have I seen this before? Yes, absolutely. Have I seen anomalies that will go on for years? Yes, absolutely. Have I seen lost or missing medical documentation and paperwork? Yes,” he said. “We do the best with what we have.”